Friday, September 2, 2011
Friday Review: My Brother's Shadow
by Monika Schröder
Farrar Straus Giroux/Frances Foster Books (September 2011)
There's one thing I know I can pretty much count on when I see the names Monika Schröder and Frances Foster together in a book: I'm in for a good read. I learned about Schröder's writing from her middle grade novel, Saraswati's Way, which I reviewed last fall. Saraswati's Way was published under the Frances Foster imprint as well, and when it comes to precious reading time, I often rely on the who's behind the scene to help me navigate the book piles. It took me about, oh, zero seconds to pick Schröder's soon-to-be released young adult novel, My Brother's Shadow, for review.
In short, it does not disappoint. With skillful restraint, Schröder's crafts yet another powerful portrait of a boy caught in the crush of value systems and a world in chaos. In this case, the story unfolds through the public/private strife of Berlin during World War I and a sixteen year old boy, Moritz, whose family is politically divided between his anti-war, political activist mother on the one side and his Kaiser-supporting, soldier brother on the other.
When the story opens, Moritz doesn't question the rightness of the war, even though he and others are barely subsisting on ersatz food and government lies. Life under the Kaiser is all he's known, and he's troubled by his mother's rebellious acts. It's a refreshing and honest insight into a period of history that, when it comes down to it, is not so much World War I as it is World War II, Act I. The fact that Moritz works as a printer for the newspaper allows his story to illuminate the clash of personal and private interests, as well as integrate the conflicts at stake.
Told in first person, the narration of Moritz is as stark and sparse as the unemotional chill of war, once again demonstrating Schröder's use of emotional restraint to reflect (rather than exploit) a harsh existence. It rings true with a voice that reads like a teen of that time, and under those conditions, would view the world, which is to say that Schröder did a fine job of getting inside the psyche of another era. It is not flowery or lyrical, but blunt and, at times, as cold as Moritz's relationship with his ailing grandmother. (There's a scene in which she asks him to apply ointment on her back that is absolutely priceless in its cringe-worthy honesty.)
The fact that the narration is also told in present tense gives the story an eerie sense of real time contemporary political struggles and war. I found myself thinking that, while we have food and shelter, not much as changed in terms of political rhetoric and the fact that it's the poor and powerless who always carry the burden of the prevailing powers' success and failure.
In the end, Moritz gets his bearings and carves a place for himself with his awakening values. He even finds a girl. A Jewish girl. We all know, of course, what that implies for his future. In this regard, the downside to ending a book at the close of WWI is that, by its very nature of unrest and mounting hostilities against Jews, it cannot feel satisfying or remotely tidy. But it does feel genuine. And that, when it comes right down to it, is My Brother's Shadow greatest strength (among many).
Due out September 24th.
Source: Advanced Reader's Copy
About my reviews:
My comments and reactions to the books I read reflect my experience of the story as a writer studying the craft. I write them to examine what makes a story work, rather than sheer reader appeal.